Master of Flémalle

(fl. c. 1420—1440)

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Netherlandish painter named after three paintings in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, that in the 19th century were wrongly said to have come from an ‘abbey of Flémalle, near Liège’ (no such abbey ever existed). Scholarly opinion now generally identifies him with Robert Campin (c.1375–1444), who was the leading painter of his time in Tournai, earning a handsome living. There are various contemporary references to him, including records of his being charged with leading a dissolute life (he was married but living with another woman); in 1432 he was sentenced to a year's banishment for this, but the punishment was commuted to a fine. However, none of Campin's documented pictures survive, and the identification of him with the Master of Flémalle depends on the similarity between the paintings given to the Master and those of Jacques Daret and Rogier van der Weyden, for Daret was Campin's pupil and Rogier almost certainly was. The once popular hypothesis that the Master of Flémalle's paintings are early works by Rogier now has few adherents. While there may still be doubt about the Master of Flémalle's identity, there is no argument about his achievement, for he made a radical break with the elegant International Gothic style and ranks with Jan van Eyck as one of the founders of the Early Netherlandish School of painting. None of the paintings given to him are dated—with the exception of the wings of the Werl altarpiece of 1438 in the Prado, a doubtful attribution—but it seems likely that his earliest works antedate any surviving picture by van Eyck. The earliest of all is generally thought to be the Entombment (Courtauld Gal., London) of about 1420. This still has the decorative gold background of medieval tradition, but the influence of Claus Sluter is clear in the sculptural solidity and dramatic force of the figures. The most famous work associated with the Master of Flémalle is the Mérode Altarpiece (Met. Mus., New York), and he is indeed sometimes referred to as the Master of Mérode. However, the attribution of this painting has also been questioned. Among the other works associated with him are the Marriage of the Virgin (Prado, Madrid), the Nativity (Mus. B.-A., Dijon), and the Virgin and Child before a Firescreen (NG, London; now catalogued as ‘follower of Campin’), which shows the homely detail and down-to-earth naturalism characteristic of the artist (the firescreen behind the Virgin's head doubles as a halo). The National Gallery also has three portraits attributed to Flémalle/Campin. In spite of the many problems associated with him, he ranks as a very powerful and important artistic personality.

Subjects: Renaissance Art.

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